J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Colonial Boston Vocabulary: "coasting"

Today’s vocabulary word is "coasting," which is what Boston boys used to call sledding. Their "coast" was the slope they chose to sled on, which for the South Latin School students in the winter of 1774-75 meant down from part of Beacon Hill onto School Street.

John Andrews, a Boston merchant, wrote to a correspondent in Philadelphia on 29 Jan 1775:

Shall close this by giving you a small anecdote, relating to some of our school lads—who as formerly in this season improv’d the Coast from Sherburn’s hill down to School street. General [Frederick] Haldiman, improving the house that belongs to Old Cook, his servant took it upon him to cut up their coast and fling ashes upon it.

The lads made a muster, and chose a committee to wait upon the General, who admitted them, and heard their complaint, which was couch’d in very genteel terms, complaining that their fathers before ’em had improv’d it as a coast for time immemorial, &ca. He order’d his servant to repair the damage, and acquainted the Governor [Gen. Thomas Gage] with the affair, who observ’d that it was impossible to beat the notion of Liberty out of the people, as it was rooted in ’em from their Childhood.
John Elliott wrote out the same story for the Rev. Jeremy Belknap the next day:
You may remember there is a declivity from the lane opposite School Street, which is the winter season the boys make use of as a coasting-place. Here not long since a number of boys were assembled for the purpose aforesaid. A servant of General Haldiman’s (whose stables were in that lane), being displeas’d by the slippery walking their amusement occasioned, maugre their pleadings & threatnings, scattered ashes over the place, & spoiled their fun.

With the true spirit of the sons of Boston, they chose a committee to wait upon the General to remonstrate against the proceedings, & complain of the maltreatment they had received of his servant. When the servant came to the door, he asked their business; they replied it was with the General. The servant was ordered to wait upon them into the parlour. The chairman informed the General that they were a committee from the boys, sent to make complaint of the invasion of their rights made by one of his servants; that he had spoiled their sport by tossing a quantity of ashes over a spot of ground which they & their fathers before them had taken possession of for a coasting-place.

The General at first did not understand what they meant by the term coasting. When informed of its meaning, he called all his servants, and, being told which was the offender, ordered him to go & throw water on the place sufficient to rectify the damage caus’d by the ashes. He treated the committee with a glass of wine, & they took their leave.

General Haldiman with great good humour told the story at General Gage’s table, which afforded the company great diversion. The Governor observed that they had only caught the spirit of the times, & that what was bred in the bone would creep out in the flesh.
This anecdote was fondly, though not accurately, remembered in Boston for decades. There are some stirring mid-1800s depictions of the schoolboys' committee in books, paintings, and engravings, mostly with the wrong location, date, or general. The publication of these two letters by the Massachusetts Historical Society in the late 1800s provide our only contemporaneous sources for the incident.

As for "coast" and "coasting," my Oxford English Dictionary lists these letters as the first recorded uses of the words with this meaning. It remained Bostonians' term of choice for decades. In a paper on a New England boy of the mid-1800s delivered at the 2002 Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, Prof. Rebecca R. Noel reported that Ned Wright consistently described himself as "sledding" in Montpelier but "coasting" on Boston Common. And the usage survives in such terms as "roller coaster."

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts, as did my father and grandparents before me--we always went coasting, not sledding. KLR

Mr Punch said...

Same with me, in the western suburbs, in the 1950s and 60s. Coasting, I believe, refers to recreational downhill runs only; sledding can involve a dogsled or sledge.

tailors said...

How interesting! I wonder how many of the boys eventually took up arms.


Came from Clayton Cramer's excellent blog.

J. L. Bell said...

The schoolboys who visited Gen. Haldimand in Jan 1775 were only thirteen or fourteen, and they were apparently all from the Latin School, thus the Harvard-bound elite of the town.

I've found Continental soldiers that young, but they were all from working-class or farm families. Lots of college boys/men went to war, but their younger brothers by and large stayed home, it seems.

Trying to identify those Latin School boys is difficult because the start of the war ended the school year and forced their teachers out of town (the master as a Loyalist, the usher as a POW in chains). Furthermore, the one man named in the 1800s as a member of the boys' committee (perhaps on his own say-so) was too old and had left the Latin School before 1775.

Philamom said...

We went coasting in my Connecticut childhood as well - late 50s, early 60s!

NJDave said...

MMmm, must be a N.E. thing. In NJ a coaster is a saucer shaped piece of metal w/out steering abilities (all but out of style when tobogans came in). Anything with 2 steel runners is a sled. We go sledding, not coasting.

Anonymous said...

I'm Boston born and bred, and a Latin School girl. In the 50s and 60s, we were still "coasting." We had sleds - Flexible Flyers were the prized, expensive ones - of wood with metal runners. In college, in the 70s, we coasted on trays from the cafeteria...